How we miss the point of Scripture
We filter Scripture, every piece. We even hand pick what we read. That is why many churches use lectionaries. These filters are necessary: The Bible has 35,000 verses in it; we can’t equally value every verse if we want to understand the enormity that is this book. Without filters we end up spending all our time pondering the begats and never get to the Beatitudes.
Jesus even gives us the filter: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV).
Filters help us understand the story of God that we find in the Bible. Churches teach filters all the time. We say things like: “This section is very important,” which implies that we don’t need to worry too much about that other section.
While filters are helpful and even necessary, they can create problems. One such problem is that our ways are not God’s ways. Our filters can miss the point. We can read Galatians looking for the rules Paul tries to lay out for community, but in truth Galatians is a letter Paul wrote to a church that was spending too much time worrying about the rules.
Filters are even more dangerous when we don’t acknowledge or admit that we are using them. Many people you talk to will claim they don’t use a filter when they read the Bible, but if we are honest, we all use filters every time we pick up the Scriptures.
Things we are passionate about or worried about or afraid of shape which verses are important and which aren’t. These concerns shape which books and verses we read all the time and which ones we pass over. If we are honest, most people have managed to never even open their Bibles to at least a few of its 66 books. These filters cause problems because many of them do more to protect us from God and insulated us from the parts of Scripture that make us uncomfortable than they help us learn about God’s desires for us.
There are several common filters used in churches across the country in many different churches (Mennonite and otherwise) that should be abandoned immediately. These filters actually get in the way of hearing about the character of God. They are based more on our fears and our desire for comfort than on an honest desire to be disciples of Jesus.
We must recognize the following filters and abandon them immediately so that God may speak more deeply into our lives and we can hear the challenging and life-changing message in the Bible. These are the three filters that are the most common and/or most distracting from the gospel of Jesus shared in our Scripture:
- Jesus gets mad when I get dirty. Aka: God’s making a list and checking it twice.
When we look at the 10 commandments, we make all of them about us instead of understanding that the first four are about our relationship to God, and the last six are about our relationship to people. We neglect justice for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the person in jail, even though these are mentioned in the Bible again and again. Since Jesus gets mad when I get dirty, it is really all about us. When we use this filter, Jesus is mad not because we abused the poor or the widow but because we broke a rule. But this way of thinking ignores the fact that God is not petty. God doesn’t make up rules so that we have to jump through hoops. God guides and directs us so that we will treat others better. Because everyone on Earth is a child of God.
- “Believing” means saying the sinner’s prayer. Aka: I said, “Jesus was my Lord and Savior.” What else do you want?With this filter we skip over the Sermon on the Mount, the sheep and goats, basically everything Jesus says besides John 3:16. We don’t hear Jesus say, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.” Instead we focus on Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
This focus often neglects what it means to believe and assumes what it means to be saved. We are not saved by our works, but a belief that doesn’t change how we live our lives isn’t really a belief at all.
- God isn’t doing anything now but is waiting until later. Aka: Just wait till Jesus gets home. This is the filter that produced the Left Behind series. Using this filter, we search for obscure prophecies that will tell us the day and the hour or the how and why of Jesus’coming.
We decide we don’t need to change the world or even take care of it because Jesus will come and make all things new—at some later date. But what if God’s time is now? What if we are supposed to be doing God’s work, instead of just waiting for it? If we are waiting for the kingdom of God to be brought by Jesus, then we have forgotten that we (the church) are the body of Christ on Earth.Why am I tearing down all these filters? They shape how we read the Bible, telling us which verses are important and which ones we don’t really need to pay much attention to. When we are studying a huge and diverse book like the Bible, filters do help.
However, these filters worry about comfort and power and security and don’t focus on the things of God.We will always read with filters, but we need to recognize we are using them and then choose better ones—ones that encourage transformed lives now, not passive faith. We need filters that allow God’s mercy, love and call to action to speak through the text instead of missing the forest for the trees.
Here are a few filters we should try on:
- God is patient and faithful to us even though we aren’t faithful.
What if this is the story of God and of God’s people? What if God has been calling us to him since the beginning of eternity, and we (we, not just those other people) are still turning away? Does this filter shed some light on the story of Abraham lying about Sarah being his wife? Does it open up the story of Judas or Jonah?
- Love wins over power.
What if God’s narrative is about justice—about justice and loving mercy that is poured over the whole world? What if we are called to turn away from our desires for comfort, security and power so that we can share God’s love with the world? Are the 10 commandments and even all those laws in Deuteronomy a little more understandable when we hear them as God’s call to justice instead of rules made up by some far off deity?
- God’s time is now, and he calls us to make his kingdom present.
Does this filter help you understand why Jesus had to come and kickstart the work of God? Does this tell you why he trusted the church to flawed humans? Can you see that God loves you and cares for you right now? Can you see that God wants you to tell everyone about God’s love for them with words, acts of kindness and charity and your thirst for justice?
All these filters are human creations—the ones I’m rejecting and the ones I’m recommending. We always read using a filter, whether we realize it or not.
What if God is a mystery unfolding before us that becomes more beautiful every day?
Bob Brown is pastor of Stahl Mennonite Church in Johnstown, Pa.